Dave Dombrowski’s reputation with the Red Sox has started to shine a little brighter.
Sure, he left the Red Sox farm system is in bad shape and the payroll is a serious problem, but it could be much worse, as proven while watching the Cubs and Dodgers implode over the last month.
Since Dombrowski was fired at the end of August, former Red Sox relievers Craig Kimbrel and Joe Kelly have combined to blow huge games for the Cubs and Dodgers, effectively ending both team’s seasons early while posting a collective ERA of 5.13 in 2019.
The Sox are trying to cut payroll to get under the $208-million luxury tax threshold next year. They’ll have to cut about $30 million as it is.
Now imagine if they also owed Kimbrel $16 million per season over the next two years (and a $1 million buyout) and $8.5 million per season over the next two years for Kelly (plus a $4-million buyout).
That’s $54 million committed to a pair of over-30 relievers in the next three years that the Red Sox don’t have to worry about.
They could’ve used the relief help in 2019, but it’s difficult to say the additions of Kimbrel or Kelly (or both) would have lifted the Sox into the playoffs. The lack of health and effectiveness from their starting rotation was too much of a problem for one reliever to overcome.
Dombrowski and the Red Sox saw their declines happen in real time.
Kelly’s decline was less obvious. He started hot in 2018 but fell apart, with a 6.13 ERA from June 1 through the end of the regular season. He allowed an .813 OPS in that span.
But because Kelly became a superstar in October, when he re-discovered his command and started throwing his curveball twice as often as he did in the regular season, the flame-thrower was a hot commodity going into the offseason.
The Dodgers locked him up in the Winter Meetings, signing him to a three-year, $25-million contract. The Red Sox never seemed to have much interest in bringing him back.
The Dodgers might regret it.
Kelly started the season with a 10.13 ERA through his first 13 outings. And while he found his groove in May and posted a 2.61 ERA over his final 42 outings, he ended the season with just 51-⅓ innings in total. In this day in age, when relievers are often being used in multi-inning roles and pitching more frequently than in previous years, 51 innings isn’t much of a workload.
This October, Kelly fell apart.
His command disappeared again. He walked five and allowed six runs in three games and blew the Dodgers’ season, allowing the eventual game-winning grand slam to Howie Kendrick as the Nationals eliminated the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series on Wednesday.
Kimbrel helped end the Cubs’ season even sooner.
After signing a three-year, $43-million contract in June, Kimbrel was throwing 96 mph fastballs with the Cubs.
“I think it’s impossible to pinpoint how much of his struggles have been because of that,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said recently on 670 The Score in Chicago. “But from my perspective, I think it’s the single biggest factor. He’s never struggled like this before, he’s never even been close to having this type of performance before.”
But that’s not quite true. Kimbrel had been quietly struggling with the Red Sox in 2018, particularly at the end of the season.
Over his career, Kimbrel’s average fastball velocity had been increasing to about 99 mph until 2018, when he had a late start in spring training and never fully regained his triple-digit fastball with the Red Sox. By the time the World Series came around, Kimbrel was throwing 96 mph. He didn’t pitch in the clinching game and Chris Sale closed out the game instead.
All 30 teams passed on him during the offseason. He might be on a Hall of Fame path, but teams deemed him too much of a risk to pay him what he wanted.
After signing with the Cubs mid-season, his fastball was knocked around at a .326 clip and he went 0-4 with a 6.53 ERA in 23 games.
In key games against the Milwaukee Brewers in July and September, Kimbrel couldn’t handle the late innings. He gave up six runs in total and the Cubs lost both crucial games against their divisional rival.
Injured twice this year, Kimbrel has a long way to go to becoming the elite closer he once was with the Red Sox.
Dombrowski surely didn’t do enough to help the Red Sox bullpen in 2019, but at least he didn’t further sink the payroll with big financial commitments to aging relievers.
Neither Kelly nor Kimbrel has been worth the money thus far. Letting both of them go might’ve been two of Dombrowski’s best moves of the year.